Category Archives: Curriculum

Pursuing Sustainability from the Middle: The Experience at the University of Rhode Island

The Declaration, Volume 7, No. 1: Summer 2004  [Curriculum]

By Robert Thompson and William Green

Many of us have felt a bit envious when reading about a president at another university who has committed his or her institution to being a leader in such things as greenhouse gas reduction or sustainable food systems. While all of us would love to have strong presidential leadership, such leadership may not be forthcoming for a number of reasons. First, sustainability is a long-term endeavor and American public university presidents typically serve fewer than six years (Padilla & Gosh, 2000). Twenty to forty-year plans to create a sustainable campus do not fit well into such short tenures. Second, university presidents have extremely full plates. Sustainability must compete for a place on the action agenda against more traditional items such as upgrading athletic facilities, dealing with budget cuts, and pursuing various high tech research initiatives. Moreover, these are all issues with well-organized constituencies. Consequently, on a continuum that runs from strong administrative leadership down to administrative hostility, few proponents of sustainability will enjoy a place at the very top and most will instead find themselves somewhere in the middle. In this article, we report some of our recent experiences at the University of Rhode Island (URI) and make suggestions about how to build support for campus sustainability when working from somewhere in the middle.1

The Sustainability Movement at URI
URI’s President and top administrators definitely fall well onto the supportive side of the continuum. They have appeared at events and spoken publicly in support of many of our sustainability projects and events. They have given us financial support on a many occasions. This fall, the President led a bicycle ride that inaugurated the URIde Community Bike Share Program. However, getting to a point where the President was leading the bicycle charge was a high point in a continuous effort to keep the sustainability movement going on campus. Generally speaking, we have kept the movement going forward by looking for opportunities to interject sustainability into discussions and decisions and by deliberately considering barriers to participation in the movement and developing strategies for overcoming those barriers.

While many people have worked over the years to make URI a more environmentally and socially responsible campus, we will primarily focus on the last few years. In 1999, a group composed of faculty, staff, and administrators from the College of Environmental and Life Sciences (CELS) applied for and received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to work on a Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI).2 The grant was for public education, curriculum development, and planning for a sustainable neighborhood and a new green building. The grant did not include adequate funds to actually implement the neighborhood plan or to prepare construction plans and build the building, but it did provide funds to purchase faculty time and hire consultants. The SCI was initially a CELS, not a URI, initiative.

The Honors Colloquium
During the fall of 2000, a core group from CELS, the URI Coastal Resources Center, the USEPA, and the Department of Communication Studies began meeting to discuss developing and implementing the SCI.3 Early on, the idea emerged to put forward a proposal about sustainability for the 2001 URI Honors Colloquium. Many universities have some sort of campus-wide lecture series. These lecture series provide excellent opportunities for involving people from across campus into a discussion on sustainability. Members of the SCI submitted a proposal for the Fall 2001 colloquium. An interdisciplinary committee from the honors faculty reviewed all of the proposals, interviewed the finalists, and selected the SCI proposal.

Simply preparing the proposal created opportunities for increasing participation. Too often members of the campus community see sustainability as an issue for those people over in the environmental sciences or engineering. In other words, people in the humanities, arts, professional schools, and the social sciences may not see sustainability as their issue. When we began writing the proposal, we sought out collaborators from across campus, explained to them why we thought their discipline was an essential part of the discussion on sustainability, and asked for as little or as much assistance as they could give. Frequently, the core group received valuable input from faculty members from outside of CELS concerning topics, readings, and speakers. We also recruited new core faculty from outside CELS who helped to ensure that SCI always kept a multidisciplinary prospective. In some cases, faculty members simply gave their name in support of the proposal. By approaching the Honors Colloquium Committee with a multidisciplinary team and colloquium, we were able to overcome a good deal of skepticism and make it very difficult to dismiss sustainability as a topic that did not have appeal beyond CELS.

Furthermore, by creating opportunities for interdisciplinary and low investment participation, we were able to achieve broader participation and thereby created political capital in two ways. First, we created goodwill with numerous people and departments by acknowledging their expertise and the significance of their areas of concern to an intelligent exploration of sustainability-a significance that many of them did not initially recognize. Second, decision makers often equate apparently broad-based involvement with an issue with strong support, because the relative “thinness” or “thickness” of the support is not given as much consideration. In other words, a large number of diverse and quality people providing some support for sustainability on campus can send a stronger message to the administration and outside community than a smaller and less diverse group providing a larger amount of person hours. While the latter core group must of course exist, the former must not be neglected.

Winning the colloquium provided immediate benefits. Suddenly sustainability was not just a matter of interest to some faculty, staff, and students, it was the focus of one of URI’s most cherished events, which gave the topic an important infusion of legitimacy. Although the SCI received some money from the Honors Program, the history and significance of the colloquium enabled the SCI to raise money to put on a lecture series that included 15 high quality speakers as well as a film series, two art exhibits, a day-long symposium, a poetry slam, and a cabaret show. In other words, we were able to inundate the campus and larger community with topics in sustainability for an entire semester.4 Not only was the overall Honors Colloquium a large opportunity window that provided a chance to propel sustainability to the forefront of university discussion, the fund raising process itself created numerous occasions for participation and overcoming barriers.

SCI approached the Office of the Provost, the dean of every college, many department chairs, and the heads of research institutes for financial support for the colloquium. We also received support from numerous outside organizations. The amount of the contribution was in many ways less important than the opportunity to discuss how sustainability was an important campus-wide issue directly linked to the way we operated our campus and teach our students. Another important aspect of getting some support from many colleges, departments, and institutes was that it allowed us to include them as sponsors on all of our publicity, sending a message to the campus community and the state that sustainability was widely supported at URI. Creating this broad based support for sustainability was critical for building political capital.

In an important sense, every event in the colloquium provided members of the URI community a potentially high payoff for relatively little effort. In a sense, free riding-where individuals take advantage of the collective effort without contributing (Olson, 1965)-was impossible. If one partook in the fruits of the colloquium (the lectures, poetry slam, the cabaret, symposium, movies, art exhibits, etc.), they were showing support for sustainability and aiding the collective effort. Head counts mattered because each seat filled was a vote for the importance of the topic. Many departments also took the opportunity to have the speakers come to classes and meet with faculty.

Because we had a wide variety of speakers, they were able to help the audiences to “see” social justice and environmental problems across scales, from global warming to dumping our environmental problems on poor communities in the region to environmental problems right on campus. Moreover, the campus community was able to hear different perspectives on these problems because the speakers came from a wide array of disciplines. Clearly, the speakers won us converts. Many of them were simply more eloquent than we were. At other times, though, we believe that faculty members were more open to listening to someone from their own discipline who spoke their own language.

The events were also seen by many attendees from the campus and outside community as a public commitment to take sustainability seriously. This message was repeated the next day because the events resulted in at least 64 newspaper articles. Even though it was not a public statement from the very top of the university, the readers repeatedly saw URI and sustainability closely linked in newspaper articles over the course of the semester. Members of the sustainability coalition began to talk about ways to show a commitment to sustainability on campus. Similarly, students who were taking the course or just attending events started to look for reasonably sized projects that they could take on to improve the environmental performance on campus.

The Sustainable Neighborhood
An important part of the SCI involved the development of a sustainable campus neighborhood for the north side of campus. A committee of faculty and staff was charged with creating a definition of a sustainable neighborhood and also developing criteria for selecting a consulting team to plan and design the project. A design team was selected in January 2002 that consisted of McDonough and Associates, Adam St Gross, BioHabitats, and BETA Engineering.

The decision to focus the planning effort on the northeast quadrant of campus made sense for a number of reasons. First, discussions were in the early stages for a new building demonstrating green technologies and it would be located in this part of campus. Second, many of the departments in CELS are located in this part of campus and students in these departments would be among the greatest beneficiaries of this new learning landscape. Third, taking on the entire campus was financially infeasible and more politically risky. Instead, we hoped to lead by example. Fourth, the North Campus District was large enough to start looking at campus management more holistically than is possible with individual projects. In fact, the inventory, analysis, and proposed actions extended beyond the official planning area because we needed to look at such issues as hydrology, forest cover, and intermodal transportation.

The planning process included numerous meetings with user groups and the planning team. There were informal information gathering sessions and public meetings with the planning team. There was also a daylong charrette and several public presentations by the consultants. This process created another round of opportunities for the campus community to participate at various levels of commitment. Quite importantly, it created a public process for debating how sustainability might be pursued and achieved at URI.

This process of exploring sustainable management of our everyday landscape required the consultants and the participants to deal with what Kahn (1999) calls generational ecological amnesia. Most people seemed never to have given much, if any, thought to how our local ecological processes and our human interactions with them had changed over time. The consultants provided an ecological history of the campus, starting around 15,000 years ago when the glaciers receded and left the ridge of glacial till and the glacial outwash plain upon which the URI campus now rests. Using historic maps and aerial photographs, the consultants showed how the original land grant college with its fields, orchards, forest cover, and streams had evolved into a rather suburban campus with little closed tree canopy, no remaining orchards, piped streams and large expanses of buildings and parking lots. Through the presentation, participants could see in a few minutes the dramatic changes that had happened over so many years that had gone largely unnoticed.

Many participants also began to replace incomplete mental models with ones that more accurately explained ecological processes. For example, even though URI sits largely within the recharge area for a sole source aquifer, most people seemed to have given very little thought to the fate of storm water. As the consultants discussed topics such as non-point source water pollution, URI’s conventional stormwater sewer system, and stormwater infiltration, a number of people began to discuss a small pond in the project area. Water flowed into the pond from a large underground pipe and then over a dam and back into another pipe. Some people had walked past the pond for years without thinking about it. Others admitted to never having noticed it. Now they were trying to figure out where the water was coming from, where it was going, and whether the former creek could be day-lighted and restored. Soon the restoration of parts of the creek, the design for stormwater management, and infiltration were major organizing principles for the various plans. The initial designs were intended to be aesthetically pleasing, sustainable and educational.

Another important site in the neighborhood was the Learning Landscape, which was designed and built as a demonstration in conjunction with an effort to develop a Sustainable Plant List for Southern New England. Demonstration sites provide an opportunity to highlight the shortcomings of the conventional ways we build our campuses. Quite importantly, smaller demonstration sites are more readily achievable than campus-wide efforts. The project was funded through a USDA Grant for Low Impact Sustainable Agriculture. It was a collaborative effort between the URI, University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension, and the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association. Its purpose was to develop a list of sustainable trees and shrubs suitable for southern New England that reflected a heightened environmental concern about the use of pesticides and herbicides as well as the problem of invasive exotic species and those requiring excessive care. The list was distributed by the Cooperative Extension (RI and MA) and is available on the Internet.5 Many of the plants included on the list were used in a demonstration garden that was designed and installed at URI as part of its Learning Landscape.

The Learning Landscape that was created in 1994 and has grown to include a children’s garden, outdoor classroom, a small fish pond, an ericacae garden, and perennial gardens, has done much to educate the community while also being an example of an alternative to traditional garden forms. The garden has served many functions well. 1) It has helped displace a faulty cultural model of good landscapes and helped make people aware of environmental problems. 2) By having a functional and aesthetically appealing demonstration garden, it has helped to show that problems associated with landscaping are surmountable and that attractive alternatives are achievable. 3) It is evidence of the value of collaboration between disciplines on campus and with organizations off campus. 4) It makes a public statement and creates the possibility of public inconsistency within the university, while at the same time being a physical example of what more of the campus could become. 5) It shows the practicality of implementation and avoids strident positions (like “natives” only) which would make it easier to dismiss.

One of the failings of the sustainable plant list is that it has not become official university policy. Indeed, apparently no concerted effort has been made to turn it into a requirement for campus landscaping. One of the failings of the Learning Landscape itself was that it lacked signage and, thus, transparency in that many visitors were not aware of its purpose or how it functioned. Instead, they simply saw a beautiful garden.
Nonetheless, when the sustainable neighborhood planning process began, the gardens played an important role in the discussions. As a successful model of unconventional design, people started to advocate expanding the gardens and creating corridors of sustainable landscaping that would link the gardens and the entire neighborhood while teaching the values of sustainability and ecology.

When the plans were prepared for the sustainable neighborhood, the designers accounted for new buildings and those in need of repair. They proposed new pedestrian paths, transit nodes, and relocated “green” parking areas, thereby creating a pedestrian core. They made recommendations for photovoltaic roof systems, groundwater collections systems, and roof gardens as well as other sustainable practices. Last fall, the sustainable neighborhood plan was used at a photo opportunities for another project. When the Governor came to campus to announce the launching of a $60 million dollar initiative for a new biotech building, the drawings of the sustainable neighborhood, which was the neighborhood into which the new building would be sited, formed the backdrop for the news conference, presumably because the plans looked good and we had included a footprint for the proposed building. Quite importantly, the new Governor and the media got a glimpse of the vision for the sustainable future.

Momentum and Continuing Endeavors
Pursuing sustainability at a university is a continuous and perhaps never-ending process. In our case, we are optimistic about the future. One of the most exciting and gratifying outcomes of the SCI thus far is that many students have been energized by the process and have undertaken numerous initiatives. For example, a new student group formed: Down to Earth, Up to Us. This group organizes and participates in concrete activities focused on sustainability. Among other things, members are active in developing a demonstration of green energy alternatives on campus and in encouraging green purchasing. One of its members organized the URIde Community Bike Share Program, which has provided a fleet of recycled bikes, free of charge, for use on campus by students, staff, and faculty. Another student group, Students for a Sustainable Peace, formed during the days preceding the war with Iraq. They held a number of public events that explicitly made the connection between our economic dependence on oil, a fundamentalist approach to global trade, global disparities in wealth, and the looming prospect of war.

The SCI will soon launch its sustainability curriculum, which will start with a minor and then later add a major. The curriculum development has had many similarities to the development of the Honors Colloquium. We sought out participation from every college on campus. While we asked professors to include existing courses, we also asked professors to modify existing courses and to develop new ones. We asked for proposals and offered some summer funding to provide incentives for course development and modification. Thus far, we have faculty from 14 different departments participating in the development of new or modified curriculum. At least five other departments are interested in participating in the minor. With the new curriculum the message that sustainability is an important issue at URI that transcends traditional academic boundaries will continue to be sent out. We have also asked faculty to include the examination of on-campus behaviors in their courses, thereby making the curriculum an ongoing vehicle to push the campus to continue to pursue more sustainable practices.

The SCI has begun an ongoing series of Sustainability Learning Circles. These learning circles have enabled students, faculty, and staff to come together over lunch to discuss connections between the values of sustainability and their daily lives. A sustainable lending library has been created as a resource for the learning circles and as a resource for the entire campus community.

Perhaps most the most exciting and promising development has been that URI staff and administrators who are involved in planning, construction, and facilities management have taken the lead on several projects. The Director of Facilities has been working to install low-energy lighting. The Continuing Education Center is installing solar shingles. A coalition of staff, faculty and students are close to installing wind power on campus. When the University decided to use impervious paving materials on two parking lots, it allowed over 10 million gallons of rainwater annually to recharge the aquifer instead of being rushed into storm drains. The people in charge of facilities at URI recently formed a waste minimization committee to implement the Peer Center’s Environmental Management System.6 They are first implementing EMS at the library and then expand it to all of the campus.

Quite importantly, sustainability is becoming a design criterion for URI building ential learning on campus. The campus architects have stated that they want the new student apartments to be green and to also further the educational mission of the campus. Committee members for the renovation of one of our most historic buildings are now starting to say that the renovation must be green. The professionals involved in planning, building and operations on campus are going to hold an all day sustainable design workshop that will allow everyone on campus.

So where is the push for sustainability coming from at URI now? Is it coming from the top or somewhere in the middle? It seems to be emerging from different places all over campus, and this is the way it should be. Administrators come and go, but campus culture endures. Thus, a sustainability movement will fully succeed only when sustainability is an integral part of that culture.

Kahn, P. (1999), The Human Relationship with Nature: Development and Culture, The MIT Press, Cambridge.

Olsen, M. (1965), The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Padilla, A. and Ghosh, S. (2000) “Turnover at the Top: The Revolving Door of the Academic Presidency”, The Presidency, Vol 3 No 1, 30-37

1 The authors have a paper forthcoming in the International Journal of Sustainability of Higher Education that provides a more detailed argument concerning the institutional structure of American universities and strategies for pushing sustainability onto the university’s “action agenda” and working to implement sustainability incrementally through discrete projects.
2 For more about the URI SCI, see
3 For the remainder of this article, the pronoun “we” is used to refer to this entire core working group and not just the authors.
4 The speakers included Lester Brown, the Founder and Chairman of the Board for Worldwatch Institute and the President of the Earth Policy Institute; Penn Loh, Executive Director of Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), based in Roxbury, Massachusetts; Eileen Claussen, the President of the Pew Center on Climate Change; William McDonough, Principal in McDonough and Associates and Professor of Business Administration; Geoffrey Heal, Paul Garrett Professor of Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility, Columbia University School of Business; Amory Lovins, Co-founder and CEO, The Rocky Mountain Institute; Timothy Beatley, Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, University of Virginia; David Orr, Chair of the Environmental Studies Program, Oberlin College; Laura Westra, Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, University of Windsor; Deborah DuNann Winter, Professor of Psychology, Whitman College; Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary; Magnus Ngoile, Director General for the National Environment Management Council, Tanzania; Fatima Gailani, former ambassador for the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan; Richard McIntyre, Professor of Economics, University of Rhode Island; and George DeMartino, Professor of International Economics, University of Denver.
5 The list can be found at The list is now in its third edition and the website has had nearly 120,000 hits.
6 See

Robert Thompson is an assistant professor of Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island. His research includes the local government responses to global climate change, coastal management, and the methods for improving the environmental behavior of individuals. William Green is an associate professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Rhode Island with more than 25 years of professional experience. His focus at URI is on sustainable community design and on participatory design studios.

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